By Ruth Conniff
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On Sunday, as Tinseltown prepared for the annual Academy Awards presentations and setup bleacher seats on Hollywood Boulevard’s fabled Walk of Fame, an Emmy-award-winning actor and other religious and secular activists protested Zero Dark Thirty, the fictionalized account of the hunt for Al Qaeda’s Osama Bin Laden, which received five Oscar nominations.
Some demonstrators wore orange jumpsuits to raise consciousness about detainees held -- some allegedly tortured -- at Guantanamo and other top secret CIA “black sites.”
Before taking to the streets, the protesters attended an anti-torture program at the Hollywood United Methodist Church, which is adorned by a gigantic red bow for AIDS awareness and literally located across the street from the complex where the Academy Awards ceremony is to take place this Sunday in the Dolby Theatre.
The church event, attended by around 75 people, was presented by the National Religious Campaign Against Torture and the Interfaith Communities United for Justice and Peace.
Grace Dyrness, director of interfaith outreach and development for the ICUJP, opened the gathering proclaiming, “Today we are declaring that torture is wrong.”
Attorney Cindy Pánuco, of the Pasadena law firm Hadsell Stormer Richardson & Renick, who represents Gitmo detainee Obaidulla, criticized Zero Dark Thirty. Referring to the U.S. torture of prisoners in the movie, Pánuco noted: “What’s shown in the film is still ongoing -- it’s not part of history. Not one character in the movie decried what we did, the violating of laws.” She said “the film missed an opportunity” to raise questions about U.S. torture methods, conditions of confinement, and more.
Stating that she was legally restrained from publicly revealing certain information about her Afghan client, Pánuco did say that there were “public reports that Obaidulla was hit on the head with a rifle butt, tortured with enhanced interrogation techniques, including sleep deprivation, but not water-boarding.” Pánuco added that Obaidulla, who is now 30, was captured nine years ago during a night raid when his daughter was just two days old, and that he’s missed her entire childhood.
Paz Artaza-Regan, who grew up in Chile under the repressive U.S.-backed regime of Gen. Augusto Pinochet, is the program and outreach director of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture. Artaza-Regan condemned the “acceptance of a culture of solitary confinement in U.S. prisons… There’s no grounding in ethics and morality in Zero Dark Thirty, or even of the effectiveness of torture.”
A 20-minute anti-torture film was then projected. It included accounts by Orlando Tizon, a Filipino survivor of torture inflicted by the U.S.-backed dictatorial regime of Ferdinand Marcos, and by an American military interrogator in Iraq. In the film, Harper’s Magazine’s Scott Horton noted that torture is “degrading to the torturer, too,” and cited “three cases of stellar U.S. personnel who committed suicide, and left notes saying they were required to do things they can’t reconcile with their consciences.”
The Center for Constitutional Rights’s Gita Gutierrez pointed out, “When North Korea did it the U.S. unhesitatingly called it ‘torture’ and wanted accountability. We don’t want these practices to be reciprocal.”
After the film David Clennon – who, during the program, cut orange ribbons to represent detainees in their orange uniforms -- was introduced as “the actor who stood up against torture.” Clennon won an Emmy for Dream On and was also Emmy nominated for the TV series thirtysomething. He appeared in the seminal lefty seventies movies Bound for Glory, Coming Home, and more recently in Clint Eastwood’s 2011 J. Edgar. Much to his regret, Clennon played agent Joshua Nankin in the CBS TV series The Agency.
Clennon denounced the way Bin Laden was killed, which is celebrated in Zero Dark Thirty, as a “vigilante adventure.” And he denounced the film’s “despicable message.”
As a show biz industry insider who belongs to the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences (which awards the Oscars), Clennon spoke about “the intersection of culture and morality, culture and politics,” and the “impact” of mass entertainment, debunking the notion that, “ ‘Hey, it’s just a movie!’ ”
Clennon pointed out that just as Kiefer Sutherland was a handsome leading man as Counter Terrorist Unit agent/torturer Jack Bauer in the long-running 24 Fox TV series, in Zero Dark Thirty, “Our heroine, who inflicts torture, is a dedicated CIA officer played by a very beautiful young woman [Oscar nominee Jessica Chastain]. This draws us in so we root for a coldblooded murderer. The same holds true for 24, which did more than Cheney or Rumsfeld to sell torture to the American public as a necessary evil.”
Following the anti-torture meeting, many attendees took their protest to the belly of the military-entertainment-industrial-complex’s beast, marching the long block down to the intersection of Hollywood and Highland, where, holding anti-torture picket signs and wearing orange ribbons, they peacefully demonstrated near the site where the Academy Awards ceremony will take place.
Among the picketers was Michael Slate, a KPFK Pacifica radio host and writer for Revolution, the Revolutionary Communist Party’s newspaper. Slate said that since Zero Dark Thirty’s director Kathryn Bigelow had not been nominated for the Best Director Oscar (probably because of the controversy stirred by her purported collaboration with the CIA and Pentagon in making the movie), the so-called Committee for Sanitizing Crimes Against Humanity in Film is bestowing the Leni Riefenstahl Award, named after Hitler’s favorite filmmaker, who directed the 1935 pro-Nazi “Triumph of the Will.”
Bigelow may not have received a Best Director nom because of the controversy stirred by her and screenwriter Mark Boal’s alleged collaboration with the CIA and Pentagon in making the movie. The CIA has had a film liaison officer at its Langley, Va. headquarters, while the Defense Department has one posted at the Pentagon. And the various branches of the armed services have entertainment industry liaison offices on an entire floor of a high rise near UCLA. According to Dave Robb, author of Operation Hollywood, pursuant to passage of a script approval process, the CIA and/or DOD assist productions that favorably depict them and help them vis-à-vis Congressional appropriations, retention, and recruitment of personnel. This assistance can be in the form of access to military bases or the CIA HQ, use of military personnel and high tech equipment, and, Robb maintains in the case of Zero Dark Thirty, “inside dope.”
Among the movies that did not receive Pentagon and/or CIA support are Vietnam War veteran Oliver Stone’s Oscar winning 1986 Platoon and 2001’s Spy Game, starring Robert Redford and Brad Pitt.
On Feb. 24 an “interfaith gathering against the culture of torture” is scheduled to take place at L.A.’s United University Church, shortly before the Academy Awards ceremony begins. It remains to be seen if Bigelow’s agitprop “triumph of the swill” will win any Oscars.